Tom Lehrer

The Remains of Tom Lehrer (Rhino)

Tom Lehrer may be the most influential musical satirist of the past century. He was certainly one of the funniest, and one of the most widely emulated. Frolicking his way toward notoriety in the early 1950s, Lehrer defied the willful amnesia of the Eisenhower era, composing witty ditties about drug dealing, bomb testing, sadomasochism, and other topics America had persuaded itself it knew nothing about. Meanwhile, he aimed a sardonic jab or two at romantic love, sentimentality, and the vapidity of the budding folk scene.

While the TV networks created their Leave It to Beaver universe, Lehrer reveled in critical thought and scathing, relentless irreverence. He also pioneered the DIY philosophy by self-releasing two 10-inch albums and selling them through mail-order, while holding down a day job as a lowly math professor at a place called Harvard. This lavish new three-CD set collects those records and everything else Lehrer released, including several live albums, singles, and rarities from the '70s children's show The Electric Company. On balance, Lehrer's catalog can appear rather slight, at least in comparison to his fame; some songs were rerecorded as many as three times, yet the repetition is hardly a drawback. It's fascinating to contrast the difference between his sparse-sounding early recordings -- which evoke images of a nutty party guest parodying Gilbert & Sullivan as the hot toddies make the rounds -- with the brilliantly professional comic timing of his later performances.

While political songwriters from Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs to Leon Rossellson strove to be his equal, none was as consistently biting or genuinely hilarious; Lehrer created a body of work that serves as a thinking person's history of the stultifying politics and cultural pitfalls of the pre-hippie era. Where else can you learn about LBJ's sidelining of Hubert Humphrey, the American recruitment of Nazi Germany's scientific elite, or the ever-present obsession with the bomb, yet find yourself laughing instead of stifling a yawn? And how many history lectures have you humming along? Although he never actually earned his Ph.D., Tom Lehrer is still the Dean of Satire. Here's your chance to audit his course.

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